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The Dangers of The Diagnostic Test – What Happened Next?

The Dangers of The Diagnostic Test – What Happened Next?

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article for this magazine about what I termed the ‘Dangers of the Diagnostic Test’. In brief, I had d given a low-level intensive Cambridge First Certificate exam preparation class some mock exams with the hope of getting them accustomed to the demands and format of the test. From my perspective as a teacher, I would also get an idea of what language aspects needed to be worked on in subsequent classes.

The effect on the students upon both doing these mock exams and seeing their results had appeared to be demoralising and I began to question whether I had made the right decision in thrusting them so quickly into the reality of what they needed to know in order to pass the exam.

This article thus recounts how the remainder of the course went, in terms of my own planning and the students’ performance and attitude and I then look forward to how I would do things next time. In this article I’ve chosen to focus more closely on my approach to improving students’ performance in Use of English rather than listening, as I found that the way I dealt with their issues in this area were more salient.

An initial change of pace

My immediate reaction to the trauma caused by doing Use of English and listening tests under exam conditions was to slow the course down and make the exam focus a little lighter for a while, the reasons being twofold. First, I wanted to establish a rapport with the students and second, make them regain as much confidence as possible.

I felt I could kill two birds with one stone by doing more relaxed speaking activities on topics familiar to the students. These were done in groups at the start of the class, which I dipped in and out of, not as a teacher, but as a participant, before doing short feedbacks sessions, highlighting common errors, making suggestions for use of interesting vocabulary, but most importantly, praising and sharing any good instances of language. I felt that this was very effective, especially in getting to know the students better and despite being aware that there is precious time to waste during an intensive exam preparation class, I believe that by slowing down the classes I got the students back on board what they must have initially considered a rapidly sinking ship.

No room for passengers

Now that confidence had been regained and I had established a very good relationship with the students, I started to shorten the abovementioned discussion tasks and veer back towards exam focus. Indeed, one class involved rather heavy focus on Use of English Part 4 (Key Word Transformations), and the students came across several instances of very challenging language that they couldn’t immediately deal with. However, in contrast to throwing them in at the deep end, this particular class was heavily scaffolded and even though the activities exposed quite a vast lack of knowledge in quite a few grammatical areas, I was there to monitor, guide them towards the correct answers, reassure them and quell any doubts they had.

This particular class must have been at about the mid-point of the course (40 hours in total) and perhaps it gave off the message of sink or swim, reminding the students what they were in for. From starting at 12 students, the groups size had slowly dropped down to 5 or 6 hardy souls, and only 2 of them, incidentally those with the highest scores on the mocks, would go on to do the exam, ruthlessly highlighting how many of the students enrolled on the course were not in shape to do it after just twenty two-hour classes of instruction.
What this reduction in numbers allowed, however, was for an even keener focus on exam strategies and tips, and I’d argue that the second half of the course was more productive than the first, because by this point the students had realised what was required of them and even those not sitting the exam were very motivated to improve skills relevant to the test, rather than simply improve their English, which many of the deserters had wanted. Clearly, it’s a lot easier to focus on individuals in smaller groups, but the fact they were mentally prepared for doing exam-geared tasks was an important factor too.

What did they think of the early diagnostic testing?

I decided to ask the remaining students what they thought of doing the diagnostic testing in the first two classes and was surprised by their reactions. All with the exception of one said they’d agreed with how I’d done it and asserted that although it was in some ways a brutal introduction to the course demands, it had given them a reality check and made them more motivated to study independently and overcome their difficulties.
It must be pointed out that those who said this were the survivors of the course, and I’m unsure how those who had quit the course would have responded.

A possible solution

As I suggested in the prequel to this article, perhaps exposing the students to the format of the exam before doing simulations would make them a less intimidating experience. Of course, waiting until we’ve been through every part of the exam in detail in class is not an option due to time restraints, but what I could have done is to have given homework tasks that replicated the exam format so that students were familiar with it even if they had issues with language they encountered.

Indeed there was a particular moment later in the course when it occurred to me that maybe I should have had a bit more confidence in the students to go away and learn autonomously. As anyone who is familiar with Use of English papers will know, they cover a wide, but, at FCE, manageable range of grammar and vocabulary. It was in marking one student’s paper that I saw he’d annotated lots of the texts where he was seemingly unsure of language, often with explanations written out in English, and it brought home to me that if students are motivated enough, they WILL go away and try and make up for their own language deficiencies.

It was at this point that I decided to make up to four Use of English papers available to students at a time, so that they could go away and study as much as they wanted, though I was keen to stress that these papers were optional tasks. The two students that would go on to do the actual test lapped them up, completed them quickly, usually with good results, and asked for more. I was acutely aware that perhaps they hadn’t done them under exam conditions and had maybe used dictionaries, but figured it wasn’t an issue at the time as through doing this they were teaching themselves a huge amount. As the exam neared, I told them to do the tests under exam conditions and even provided them with answer keys so they only had to come to me to erase doubts.


My main takeaway from this experience was to trust the students to learn autonomously and proactively. Rather than opting for one extreme of throwing a mock exam in their face at the start of a course, or the other of softly bedding them in and making sure they are ready to take a mock test before presenting them with one, I think a happy medium is to give them homework which gets them accustomed to exam formats and ways to deal with them before being confronted with them in a classroom.

Indeed there is even an argument for non-inclusion of exam-condition testing in precious class time, as it is better spent teaching rather than testing. As Burgess & Head (2005:18) argue, weaker learners require more focus on teaching, as we don’t want to excessively ‘highlight their inadequacies’. I must admit that I pulled the plug on planned exam simulation in the classroom because I felt that dealing with language and skills in real time was better than merely identifying them as a result of a test.

In summary, if students are to pass a proficiency exam, we have to invest a certain amount of trust in them to go away and practice under exam conditions.

What do other readers think? Is a diagnostic test necessary at the start of an exam preparation course? Is it even necessary at all? Can we trust our students to do mock tests under exam conditions at home? And does this depend on their age, motivation and confidence?
Let me know your opinions.


Burgess, S. & Head. K. 2005 How to Teach for Exams Pearson Longman

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